Blake Mycoskie single-handedly popularised the ‘one for one’ giving model. These days, his business card reads ‘Chief Shoe Giver’, and he spends his time figuring out how else he can mobilise the power of his multinational brand, TOMS, to help out.
The distinctive blue-and-white logo on the back of TOMS shoes is based on the stripes of the flag of Argentina, because that’s where it all began. Travelling there in 2006, Blake Mycoskie, then 29, immersed himself in the culture – playing polo, dancing the tango, drinking malbec and adopting the local canvas shoe, the alpargata. He liked alpargatas so much that he wondered fleetingly if the lightweight slip-ons would have market appeal in the United States, his home country.
On his travels he encountered a couple of American volunteers who were distributing donated shoes, and they pointed out what a pair of shoes could accomplish: allow kids to attend school, play outside safely, protect them from cuts, blisters and soil-transmitted diseases. But the supply of donated shoes was irregular and unreliable. Mycoskie wondered if the solution lay not in the world of charity, but in the one he knew so well: entrepreneurship. He was in Argentina taking a break from the demands of running his fourth start-up, and he started turning over the idea in his mind: what if people could easily buy a pair of shoes for someone else – by buying a pair for themselves? “Something about the idea felt so right, even though I had no experience, or even connections, in the shoes business,” he wrote in his autobiography, Start Something that Matters. “I did have one thing that came to me almost immediately: a name for my new company. I called it TOMS. I’d been playing around with the phrase Shoes for a Better Tomorrow, which eventually became Tomorrow’s Shoes, then TOMS.”
Back in California, Mycoskie recounted the story to a few of his friends who gave him ideas for stores that might be interested in selling such shoes. “You don’t always need to talk with experts; sometimes the consumer, who just might be a friend or acquaintance, is your best consultant,” he says.
One weekend, Mycoskie visited one of the shops his friends had recommended, meeting the shoe buyer – a woman who judged countless brands for inclusion in the store. “From the beginning, she realised that TOMS was more than just a shoe,” says Mycoskie. “It was a story. And she knew she could sell both of them.”
The next person to hear the story was a Los Angeles Times journalist, who splashed it on the front page of the newspaper’s style section – prompting orders for 2,200 pairs. (Mycoskie had just 160 in a room of his apartment.) That was when Vogue called. In the end, TOMS sold – and subsequently donated – 10,000 pairs of shoes in its first six months of operation. Ralph Lauren offered to design a pair, his first brand collaboration in 40 years, and the American phone network AT&T made a television advertisement featuring one of the TOMS shoe drops in Uruguay. The story had won everyone over.
Since then, TOMS has distributed more than 35 million pairs of shoes to children around the world – and to give that number some scale, it’s about nine pairs for every New Zealander. In 2011, Mycoskie started adding other ‘one for one’ products. Buy sunglasses, give restored sight. Buy coffee beans, give access to safe water.
“Our mission is very simple,” Mycoskie tells The Generosity Journal. “It’s to use business to improve lives.” Not just the lives of the people TOMS serves, but its customers, employees and suppliers, too. The chain should benefit everyone who takes part in it, says Mycoskie. “That’s our first responsibility, our real responsibility,” he says. “We love seeing other brands with similar business models. We actually launched the TOMS Marketplace a couple years ago where we highlight and sell various products from socially conscious brands, like Krochet Kids, stone + cloth, and HALF UNITED. It would be great to see more and more businesses and social entrepreneurs get started with the ‘one for one’ business model.”
Mycoskie announced in 2014 that TOMS would launch a new ‘one for one’ product every year. The TOMS Roasting Company, which kicked off in 2014, offers direct-trade coffee to consumers and donates safe water access; earlier this year, the TOMS Bag Collection was established to distribute birth kits and train birth attendants. Mycoskie is a well of ideas, and given his list of hobbies it sounds like he just doesn’t stop – he’s an avid snowboarder, sailor and golfer, among other outdoor pursuits. “Some of my best ideas come when I’m away from the office and doing something active,” he says. “When I run, I can let my mind wander and I actually come up with a lot of ideas.”
As well as his friends, Mycoskie says he turns to his family when he needs advice. “I really admire my father. He taught me to be persistent, hardworking and to continue developing into a man of character and integrity.”
Although now, at 39, Mycoskie can start dishing out advice himself. He says it’s important for young entrepreneurs to remember that they’re at an advantage rather than a disadvantage. “People, especially other business people, are excited about young entrepreneurs. They kind of see themselves in you, so it’s a great opportunity to get mentorship. It’s also a great idea to get your foot in the door. They see you as a young, driven entrepreneur and so they give you a chance.”
That’s why, says Mycoskie, he dropped out of university and started a business – his first company, a laundry service, launched when he was 18. “If I was trying to get my foot in the door today, people would just see me as another entrepreneur or business guy.”
Nowadays, what gets him out of bed in the morning? “Knowing that I have the joy and privilege of helping and inspiring people; from the communities that we give in, to the people who come to work at TOMS each day and hopefully to the young generation of budding entrepreneurs who can see that it is possible to merge your passion with business and be successful. It’s pretty incredible what this movement has grown from its humble beginnings and I feel grateful every day that I get to call this my job. I love what I do, and I’m absolutely inspired by the people I work with, the people I meet and the places I am privileged to travel to.”
Words by Rebekah White.
Visit www.toms.com and grab a pair of TOMS to put shoes on the feet of a child in need.